9 | Wagner
Over the next few weeks, I made about a thousand dollars from fighting. There was a gathering twice a week and I didn’t have as many fights each night as I did the first night but winning was just as effortless.
Cody picked me up every time and drove me back when I was done. I hadn’t minded running, but Cody insisted on driving me. After the third night, he’d brought me back to his apartment and we’d celebrated by getting drunk.
Damen had no idea I was sneaking out. He’d installed a punching bag in his garage like he promised, and he’d been teaching me how to ride his Kawasaki Ninja 650.
I started spending more time working on my songwriting, too. Gia had loved my songs and she had inspired me a little to write more. My other songs had been decent and private, but the one I was working on now was straight from my heart.
The one I was working on right now was in memory of Ashton. I’d tried writing songs for him before, but I’d never been able to finish. Now that I’d been fighting, my mind was clearer, and the words just poured out.
“I wish, I wish, I wish upon a star:
For my dreams to take me to the place you are.
Every waking moment of my life, is filled with thoughts of you;
The moment that you left me, oh my heart split into two.
I turn around and hope you’re there;
But every time I do it’s bare.
You’re never coming back again;
And that means I’ve lost my best friend.
I wish, I wish, I— “
A knock at the door startled me. I set my guitar on its stand and laid back on my bed, grabbing my phone. “Come in.” I called.
Damen opened the door and glanced at my guitar. “Weren’t you just playing?”
I swallowed. “Oh, I was just messing around.”
“It was really good.”
I stared at him. “Is that why you came in here?” I asked after a minute.
“Uh, no.” He came in all the way and leaned against my dresser. “Your mom called the other day. She wanted to make sure I enrolled you in school this week.”
I bit my lip. I’d kind of forgotten about school starting again. “So?”
“So, I made an appointment to meet with the school’s principal and I was wondering if you wanted to come along.”
“Um.” I sighed. It wasn’t like I was doing a whole lot here. Maybe I could get a sense of what the school was like, be a little better prepared for my first day. “I guess. When is the appointment?”
Damen winced. “In fifteen minutes.”
“What the heck, Damen!” I got to my feet quickly. “We have to leave literally right now!”
“Your transcripts from your old school say you had a GPA of 3.8.” Mr. Wright, the principal, looked at me. “That’s very impressive.”
“Thank you?” I didn’t know where he was going with this.
“And you played soccer.” He said, watching me.
That wasn’t on my transcripts. I shot Damen an accusing glare, but he shook his head in innocence.
“Hayden,” Mr. Wright gave a little sigh. “I know what happened back in Virginia.” He said. “I came across the story accidentally, but your name is very memorable and when your uncle mentioned your name, I couldn’t help but make the connection.”
I nodded and bit my lip. If he knew, and Cody had known, the other kids were sure to know too.
“I don’t play soccer anymore.” I told him.
Mr. Wright nodded. “I’m not suggesting otherwise, that’s your decision. I’m just thinking you probably were hoping to keep your past hidden, am I right?”
“I just want you to know that it’s more than likely someone else will make the connection as well.” He continued. “I will do everything in my power to make sure you’re treated fairly and right, but I want you to be prepared.”
Mr. Wright continued, talking to Damen, but my mind was spinning in a million different directions. There was no way I’d survive the year if everyone figured out who I was. An idea popped in my head.
“Wagner!” I burst out.
Mr. Wright stopped, and both he and Damen looked at me.
I winced. “Sorry. I just thought maybe you could put down Wagner as my last name instead of Starr. My mom’s going back to it, since she’s divorcing my dad, so it’s not a complete lie.”
Mr. Wright thought for a moment. “I suppose it would be okay as long as it wasn’t on the actual transcripts.” He looked at Damen. “What do you think?”
“Please?” I pleaded Damen with my eyes. I was desperate. If Damen didn’t agree, I would drop out of school. That’s how desperate I was to keep my past hidden.
Damen nodded. “It sounds okay to me.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
“Hayden Wagner.” Mr. Wright said, grinning.
“Nobody special.” I said. “Just an ordinary girl.”
The next day, Gia insisted on taking me shopping for school supplies and we had so much fun. She somehow had the ability to brighten my day just with her smile.
We hit several different stores and malls, and we ended up doing more clothes shopping than supplies shopping. I had no idea how much money we spent, since Gia wanted to pay for it all, but the trunk of her car was packed full by the time we finally went home.
I’d noticed that my style of dress had started to portray the fighter in me a little, but as I was putting away my new clothes, I was shocked at how much. Everything I bought showed either my athlete, or fighter. There wasn’t a single cute sweater or dress in there.
That night, I climbed in Cody’s car, wearing ripped black jeans and a gray muscle tee that I’d made out of an old Nike shirt. “I want a real fight.” I said, shutting the door. “I’m tired of these fake shows you call fights. I don’t care if I get hit anymore, I want a challenge.”
Cody looked at me. “Are you done yet? Because you have a new challenger.”
“Seriously?” My eyes widened. “Like someone who can actually fight?”
“Did you accept?” I asked. Since Cody knew everything about fighting and I didn’t, I relied on him to make sure the fights were properly arranged. He’d become a sort of manager for me.
“No.” Cody shook his head. “I’m not sure this is actually a fight you want to accept.”
“What?” I gave him a look. “I’m 14-0 and I just told you I’m not afraid of getting hit. I’ll take anything.”
Cody sighed. “I know you could beat him. That’s not my problem.” He paused. “This guy, Wesley, I helped him when he first started fighting. He’s a decent fighter and a pretty nice guy, but Hayden, he lives in your building.” He looked at me. “That means if anything goes wrong in the fight and he ends up holding a grudge, he knows where you live. And even if it turns out fine and he walks away fine, that’s still one relationship you’d definitely want to hide from your uncle.”
I thought for a moment. “This Wesley, he’s a good fighter, but I can still beat him?”
“Yeah” Cody looked cautious.
“Well,” I tossed my head. “Then let’s hope he’s an agreeable guy. I’m accepting the fight.
Cody gave me a look. “Whatever. In the end, it’s your problem.”
When I met Wesley, I didn’t think he’d be a problem at all. He seemed like a great guy, not at all like any of the other fighters I’d met. He was dressed sharper than the others and there was a merry twinkle in his eyes. He didn’t seem like a fighter at all. Instead, he reminded me of the guys I’d hung out with back in Virginia.
“So, you’re Stardust.” He said, grinning with admiration. “I’ve seen you fight a few times and heard a lot about you.”
I lifted my chin a little, determined not to show anything I was thinking. “I’ve heard a little about you as well.” I told him.
The truth was, Cody had spent the last thirty minutes telling me everything he knew about Wesley and his style of fighting. Even with everything I had learned, I still didn’t know why he’d started fighting.
He didn’t need the money, didn’t struggle with anger problems, he was eighteen, but his home life seemed okay. His life was essentially perfect.
“So what rules do you play by?” Wesley asked, his eyes twinkling again.
I ignored it. “No eye jabbing, no hair pulling.” I said. I’d added the second after a guy tried to grab my hair when I was throwing him.
“Fine.” Wesley nodded. “But you have to put your hair up then. I don’t want to get called for something I wasn’t trying to do.”
“Fair enough.” I pulled my hair back into a high, but loose ponytail. “Your rules?”
He gave a small laugh. “All I was going to say was no biting.”
I nodded. I hadn’t even thought of that one before. “Fine. When does the fight end?”
Usually, instead of asking what they wanted, I would’ve suggested that we fight until blood is drawn, but I was tired of that. It was too easy, too fast. And I was curious what Wesley would pick.
“Eight seconds on the ground, pinned or by yourself, knees count.”
I thought about it a moment, trying to figure out what that meant for my strategy. “Deal.” I said finally. It was time for me to put a little more effort into hurting someone.
I knew from the minute the fight started that it was going to be different from the other ones. Wesley was completely different from the other guys I’d fought.
Thinking I’d switch it up a bit and throw the first hit, I immediately went for a front kick to his face, but Wesley was ready, catching my foot in the air.
Thankful for years of practice with Ashton, I quickly got out of the hold by jumping into a back handspring. The move got me whistles and cheers from the crowd, but years of soccer had taught me to block it out.
Wesley made the next move by going in for a series of punches, one of which caught my left shoulder.
It didn’t hurt badly, and I grinned, realizing it was the first time I’d been hit in a fight. I dodged Wesley’s next punch and turned it into another Judo move, throwing him on his back. He groaned in pain but was back on his feet in seconds.
What surprised me was that he didn’t look mad or even annoyed. He had a little smirk on his face, like he knew something I didn’t.
I didn’t like it, so I moved in and threw a series of punches, most of which connected with his face.
The fight was intense, although it was apparent that I was still the better fighter. After a few minutes, I finally finished Wesley off with a spinning hook kick.
I’d never used the kick in actual sparring, just with dummies, and I knew I was taking a risk using it, but I’d been itching to try it. In the end, I executed it perfectly and Wesley collapsed to the ground.
He didn’t move for several moments and it crossed my mind that maybe I’d knocked him out. I’d never seriously hurt someone in a fight, although since I started street fighting, I had certainly hurt a few people. But I still wasn’t ready to hospitalize someone.
Finally, Wesley groaned and rolled over, giving me an internal sigh of relief. Since he’d been down more than eight seconds already, I moved over and gave him a hand up.
He still didn’t look mad, just a little in pain.
“You good?” I asked. I didn’t know why I was talking to him, or even helping him up. I’d never talked to my opponents after the fight, but Wesley was just altogether different than everyone else.
He twisted his neck around, loosening up a little, and then grinned. “Yeah, that was one hell of a kick.”
Relieved that he wasn’t mad or hurt, I gave him a half smile.
“I’m Wesley.” He said, grinning.
“Hayden.” I hadn’t told anyone else here my name, but I didn’t think telling Wesley would be a problem.
“So, Cody recruited you?” He asked as we walked out of the ring.
“Yep.” I was curious about this guy, but I didn’t want to give him anything on me. “What about you? Why did you start fighting?”
He looked at me. “It’s a long story. But I challenged you for a reason.”
I gave him a look. What the heck was his deal? I liked what I knew, but he seemed a little strange too.
“Nothing bad, I promise.” He gave a laugh. “I want you to teach me how to fight.”
I opened my mouth a little in surprise, not sure what to say.
“You don’t have to give me an answer right now.” He told me, grinning. “I know it’s counter-productive to teach your opponent, but look at it this way, if you ever fought me again, you’d know all my weaknesses.”
“Why me?” I asked him. “There’s dozens of fighters here, so why me?”
He shrugged. “You’re a trained fighter, anyone can see that, and I like your style, it’s unique and powerful.” He watched me for a moment. “And I think behind that tough look you’ve got, there’s a good person. Most of these guys are messed up all the way through, but I don’t think you are.”
I stared at him, not sure what to make of everything. He couldn’t have gained all that just from watching me in a couple of matches, but Cody said he lived in the same building as me. “Have you been watching me train?” I asked.
He gave a sheepish grin. “A little. I saw you training before I saw you fight, but even before I knew you were into street fighting, I was low key thinking about asking you to teach me, just as a curious neighbor.”
“Why’d you challenge me then?”
“I just figured you wouldn’t give me the time of day without a reason. I knew you’d crush me, but at least it would get me close enough to talk to you.”
I almost smiled. He was pretty desperate. “Fine. I’ll give you a few pointers, if it goes well, maybe I’ll train you more, but no promises.”
He grinned. “That’s good with me.”
“Meet me at my garage, nine tomorrow morning.” I said, walking away. I went and found Cody, who was counting the money I’d won.
“That fight won you five hundred dollars!” He gave me a big grin. “I guess Wesley isn’t too upset?”
I hesitated and decided not to mention that I was going to train Wesley. “Yeah, he’s fine. I guess he was just taking a huge risk, hoping it would pay off.” I said. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah.” Cody glanced at the ring. “I just have one last thing to do. I’ll meet you at my car.”
“Okay.” Cody left and I headed to his car, which was parked off towards the entrance to the boatyard.
As I was walking away, I noticed a guy standing on the edge of the crowd, watching me. I couldn’t see his face because it was dark and he had a baseball hat pulled low over his eyes, with his hood up, but a chill swept over me.
I didn’t know why. He pretty much looked like every other guy here, but the feeling my gut reminded me of how I’d felt back in Virginia when I thought someone was watching me from behind the bleachers at school.
There had been a few other times in Virginia where I’d felt like I was being watched or followed, and maybe I had been, by some kid or reporter hoping to catch me doing something wrong, but nobody knew me here.
I looked back to the spot he’d been standing, but the guy was gone. I glanced around, trying to see if he’d just moved, but I couldn’t find him. I shook it off and climbed in Cody’s car. I must just be paranoid.
Why the heck would anyone be watching me?